(This piece was written in 2003, when a disturbing incident took place during a brilliant show of photography in Bangalore)
stands tall and proud, 10 arms raised in battle-readiness. Despite her benign
expression, each hand holds a weapon as she towers over the demon Mahishasura
whom she has vanquished. Her graceful form is made of pliant clay - the
goddess-in-evolution grows, then acquires drapes of silk or innovative
Such scenes are common in the crowded bylanes of Kumartulli in Kolkata, where
local artisans create thousands of 'protimas' (images) of the mother
goddess for the annual Durga Puja, an intense, weeklong, socio-cultural
celebration that transcends religion or community.
The scene is replicated at dozens of venues in Chennai, Bangalore or Hyderabad,
where the Bengali community congregates to celebrate the festival to the
resounding beat of the dhaak (drum), the fragrance of incense at the
evening arati (puja), and the crisp rustle of handloom saris.
Images of the goddess and the rituals surrounding Durga Puja are etched on the
nation's collective psyche. And over time, hundreds of photographers have
documented the making of the Kumartulli images. And yet, when "The
Greenroom of the Goddess" - a black-and-white photo-essay on the theme by
Kolkata-based photographer, publisher, and theatre person Naveen Kishore -
opened at an upmarket lifestyle store in Bangalore recently, it was forced to
close within a week.
What happened? Reliable sources reveal that a dozen well-dressed men who
visited the show objected to the "inadequately draped" depiction of
the goddess as "offensive" to their religious sensibilities. They
demanded that 15 of Kishore's 29 frames be withdrawn, effectively bringing the
show to a close.
The store, which had earlier exhibited Kishore's photographs on another theme,
had also displayed outstanding photographic essays by Ketaki Sheth, Dayanita
Singh and Pallon Daruwala.
What does this radical reaction portend? Does it spell a throwback to the 1996
storming of the Husain-Doshi Gufa in Ahmedabad, sparked by a 20-year old
rendition of Saraswati in the nude, during which 16 of the 26 M F Husain
originals were burnt? Or the continuing saga of rightist morality being
superimposed on contemporary Indian culture - a morality glimpsed more often in
Mumbai and New Delhi than in the Indian south?
"What I feel is numbness, in the way you can hear silence in a vacuum. I
feel resignation and sadness. Extreme exhaustion," says Kishore, a
self-confessed amateur photographer, the spirit behind Seagull Books, known for
its quality publishing.
As a photographer, Kishore sees possibilities through a camera lens: "Of
fragments, of moments, of whimsies, of memories that images trigger in me on a
daily basis. That's all." Of the artisan's clothing casually draped over
the image. Of idols stockpiled by the riverside, recycled by urban urchins, or
the debris from the immersion. Just visuals triggered when novelist Amit
Chaudhuri was exploring the idea of an essay on the transformation of Kolkata
during the Pujas, a few years ago.
How do creative people respond to these private intrusions into public spaces?
Noted writer-activist Mahasweta Devi reacts spontaneously: "It's all part
of what the establishment is trying to do. I think we should resist
fundamentalism in every form."
Referring to her recent candidature for the position of President of the
Sahitya Akademi, the feisty Mahasweta Devi adds, "Do you know what canards
were being spread in this context? That the Akademi is being taken over by the
Marxists, the communists, the leftists! I think there should be all-India
protests about every infringement of our basic freedom."
Husain, amidst his 'Theorama' series that depicts nine religions and humanity
at large, veers vehemently in another direction: "This has nothing to do
with religious sentiments. It's all petty politics. These elements want
attention. We should ignore them, just as history will."
What of others who use photography as an artistic tool? Says Bangalore-based
Pushpamala N, "It's the first time this has happened in Bangalore. I think
the intention behind this completely irrational act is to create an atmosphere
of fear in which fundamentalism can grow. After all, it's just a year to the
Seagull Theatre Quarterly's editor Anjum Katyal, who has lived in Kolkata for
many years, has another view. "Immorality is an imported, perhaps
Victorian, notion. Culturally, we've been traditionally very comfortable with
nudity/nakedness. These images have been created in the same way for over a century,
with an armature fleshed out, covered with paint and cloth. Don't these
elements, who are basically ignorant of our religious practices, realize that
the image is not a goddess until a puja (prayer) invests it with divine
How does Bangalore-based Balan Nambiar, a National Award winning artist and
researcher into ritual performing arts of the Indian west coast, enter the
ongoing debate? "Throughout history," he says, "Chola and
Pallava bronzes of goddesses used for worship were depicted bare-breasted,
never with a covered torso. And 'abhishekams' (worship) were conducted
on these figures."
Balan adds, "In Indian mythology, even the goddess Saraswati was always
depicted with her breasts bare." Saraswati symbolises learning, literature
Is Puritanism, then, replacing the wisdom of our Puranas? Has Indian society
lost sight of the creative latitude it once embraced, including
self-portraiture through nudes that generated wide-scale public debate? Have we
daubed messy fingerprints on the lens of our times?
Even as the debate over such censorship "not by the law" rages, we
have a few choices. To stand up and protest. To turn away and ignore those who
espouse the right of might, whether political or pecuniary. Or to form
coalitions of conscience to safeguard the freedom of expression invested in
each Indian individual by the Constitution.
Aren't these the fundamental norms on which Indian art thrived for centuries?
Will our self-appointed moral brigade take time off to study our rich cultural
ancestry? How will history gauge us in retrospect? Whether as artists,
photographers, viewers or those engaged in the commerce of art, our time starts